Image Credit: / anshu mishra

I’ve been re-watching Season 2 of The West Wing over the weekend. I only meant to watch a couple of episodes, but as usually happens when I put it in the DVD-player, I started to binge. It’s a show that never fails to tickle my sense of optimism, my hope for the future, my love of smart writing, clever plot twists, and witty dialogue. Not to mention a soft spot for good political drama.

It’s a show that just ticks most of my boxes. Not much action, not a lot of sci-fi, and very little courtroom drama but just about everything else about the show delivers what I enjoy in a TV show. It’s not everyone’s first love, but that’s all right, it doesn’t have to be.

Long-time readers will be aware of my love for the series and that I even have an occasional series of articles, “Lessons From The West Wing”, and may be wondering why this isn’t one of them. It’s because this article isn’t really derived from the show – it’s just that there is a tangential connection.

Here’s my point, and the RPG connection: your goal as a GM should be to make your players feel about you campaign the way I feel about the West Wing.

It’s an absolutely obvious point, but one that can often get overlooked when a GM is making serious efforts to improve his game. You can get so caught up in details that the biggest picture of all becomes enshrouded in fog and misplaced.

What Do You Want?

I’m not a fan of GM surveys of players. Very few of them do very much more than contradict each other and raise hopes that will be impossible to satisfy. Other GMs, to be fair, have gotten very good mileage from player surveys, or so I’ve been told; I’m just not one of them.

But there is one question that should be put to the players as soon as you decide to run a campaign, and that it is never to late to ask. Two questions, actually – but this is the first: “In one word, what do you want from the campaign?”

That “one word” is critically important. It forces people to think hard about their answer and it leaves the answer loose enough that you can do multiple things with it.

What is one important thing or change that you character wants to accomplish by the end of the campaign?

The other question is one that can’t really be answered until your a few sessions into the campaign in most cases; occasionally players can do it after character generation with the benefit of campaign briefing notes, but that’s usually not enough.

Make sure your players know that you mean the question seriously and the answers WILL alter the shape and scope of the campaign. That means that frivolent answers should and will be rejected, and that you may want to discuss more serious answers with the player in question before you implement their requests.

The GM’s Answers

The GM should also answer the first question and give two answers to the second. Question one: What do YOU want from the campaign? What will make you enjoy it? and Question Two: what are two things that you want the PCs to achieve in the course of the campaign?

It’s very important that there be a different number of answers to the two questions when they are all compiled. You’ll see why in a minute.

These answers are no less important than the ones you get from the players. If you aren’t having fun, you won’t put your best efforts into the campaign.

The Combinations

To keep the combinations manageable in an article, let’s say that you have 3 players. That’s a relatively small campaign, the average is usually 4 or 5.

With three players, you have four responses to Question 1 – A, B, C, and D – and five responses to Question 2 – a, b, c, d, and e.

If you take each of these combinations in sequence, you get a pattern:

Aa, Bb, Cc, Dd, Ae, Ba, Cb, Dc, Ad, Be, Ca, Db, Ac, Bd, Ce, Da, Ab, Bc, Cd, De, repeat.

Compare that to the pattern that you get if you didn’t have the extra answer from yourself in response to Question 2 (the ‘e’ response):

Aa, Bb, Cc, Dd, repeat.

The extra answer gives a lot more variety by making the cycles of different lengths.

The meaning of the combinations

This makes a lot more sense if I explain with a more substantial example:

A = action-adventure; B = awe; C = politics; D = characterization/roleplay

a = A lasting peace with the Orcs; b = explore the cosmology; c = reform the Dwarves; d = overthrow the Hidden Lich-King; e = Discover the hidden secret of the Lucentius Order.

(No, I don’t know what all of those mean; I made them up out of whole cloth, and most won’t make sense without the context of the character and the campaign background).

So, Question 1 gives style of adventure, while Question 2 gives a plot thread. The combinations show how the two are linked. Aa is an action-adventure plot furthering peace with the Orcs. Exactly how it is going to do that is up to the GM.

Add the occasional item from left-field

Throw in the occasional item that no-one has asked for, that stands alone in terms of plot, but that gives each of the players a little of what they’ve asked for, and you have a campaign.

Mix It Up

Of course, in real life, you wouldn’t simply go Aa, Bb, Cc, Dd, Ae, and so on. You might go Ca, Be, Ad, and so on; the order in which things appear is something that needs to be massaged in such a way that it makes sense. You might also have logical difficulties to overcome – it’s hard to do much exploring of the cosmology until characters are high enough level to make the trip under their own power. Unless you get creative, of course.

The third ingredient

On top of that, you should make an earnest effort to ensure that no two successive adventures have the same ‘feel’ to them. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes it’s not.

Individual plot threads

This becomes even more important if you break your adventures into plotlines with internally-contained subplots and inter-connective plot threads. For example, you might make sure that if the main adventure doesn’t focus on the Action-Adventure style, player A has a small action-adventure subplot to scratch that itch – so that almost every adventure has some ‘A’ content.

It’s also reasonable to assume (until proven otherwise) that player A will be looking for opportunities to scratch his action-adventure ‘itch’ even when it’s not explicitly ‘hard-coded’ into the adventure.

Other Subdivision modes

The more ways you have to slice an adventure up, to subdivide it, the more ways you can mix and match to achieve different plot configurations. That’s a blessing, because every adventure should have something from all four of A, B, C, and D. You don’t want any given player to be happy one adventure in four or even one in two – you need to deliver what they want every time, even if it isn’t the predominating influence within the day’s play.

For example, you might configure your usual adventures to have a James Bond style “teaser” before the main action starts to satisfy the action-adventure component. At the same time, you might tease another player who loves mystery content with a puzzle that will lead into the main action. You could alternate those mystery openings with something that will scratch the itch of player #3, and add variety every now and then so as not to be predictable.

Another area where you can customize the adventure is in the mode of resolution. Again, sometimes diplomacy, sometimes action, sometimes a mystery.

Use all the subdivisions open to you to make sure that each adventure delivers something to match each player’s desires.

Complicated Answers

Of course, the example answers offered are relatively simple, as you can see from the fact that I was able to write five of them in so short a space. In real life, the answers you get might be far more complex.

Take “Defender”, for example, a Kzin (NPC) character from my Zenith-3 campaign. His homeworld attempted to conquer the Human Race a couple of times (and failed spectacularly each time). Their society then experienced a radical revolution when a retrovirus was introduced that made all the females sentient, and (in fact) smarter than the typical Kzin Male at the hands of a then-PC in another campaign. As a result, and due to the recognition of some mutual dangers and interests, the Kzin have entered into a formal treaty and diplomatic relationship with the humans of Earth. This particular NPC was part of a revolutionary cabal dedicated to restoring the status quo, not realizing that they were being manipulated by an outside party, and that the end result would have been the destruction of his homeworld; it was saved from that fate by the PCs, one of whom then retired to teach the surviving members of the cabal his traditional Japanese sense of Honor. He hates and distrusts humans and the PCs in particular, because of their affiliation with the Matriarchy, but his sense of obligation has forced him to become a member of the team until his debt to them has been repaid to his satisfaction. At least, that was his motivation when he joined; it is slowly evolving into something different, as his mind-set and values are stretched to encompass a more pan-galactic perspective. Eventually, there will be a crisis – what happens then will depend on everything that has happened between the PCs and this NPC prior to that point. He might leave the group and become an enemy, or he might renounce his old ways and become a fully-fledged member of the team, or he might adopt some entirely different course that I can’t presently anticipate.

Of course, the PCs were suspicious, and even a little hostile to his position within the team when he first showed up; but slowly, they have come to trust him, and he has made several worthwhile contributions to the team.

You could summarize his initial ambitions relatively simply – “Satisfy his sense of Giri” – provided that the background and context is understood. But the evolution in perspective and the crisis of conscience that will eventually result are beyond simple summation.

Character ambitions can and should evolve as the campaign progresses. Characters may add secondary objectives and decide that new objectives have a higher priority than their original ones. To some extent, the GM may be able to anticipate these and build them in, to some extent he will have to evolve the campaign as the characters and their relationship with the campaign evolves.

The combinations don’t dictate the totality of an adventure, and the totality of them don’t define the entirety of the campaign; they are more akin to recurring themes.

On top of that, tastes change. Our action-adventure aficionado might discover a passion for social reform and want to explore that more deeply in the campaign. The would-be cosmology explorer might so fall in love with a mystery built into the campaign that he wants more of the same.

Worse still, some answers are more difficult to analyze than others. How do you respond if a player answers “variety” or “surprises” to question 1? (A rhetorcal question – the obvious answer is mix it up still further).

The bottom line

Ultimately, these are just guidelines for what the players want more of, and what they don’t want. My co-GM and I recently ran a very Gothic-horror adventure in the Pulp Campaign, something decidedly Lovecraftian in nature, despite knowing that it was not the favorite genre of one of the players. We went out of our way, however, to make sure that he had substantial “swashbuckling” content to enjoy – and despite leaving the adventure deliberately open-ended, have no intentions of repeating anything like it anytime soon. Such adventures are a definite pulp sub-genre that should appear at least once in the campaign, but once is enough. Every RPG adventure is a package, a collection of different styles and influences.

But every GM should have some idea of what his players want him to deliver at all times. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes its hard, and sometimes the player himself doesn’t know (except perhaps by exclusion). Ask yourself the question right now – do you know what each of your players want?

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